We often hear the word antioxidant and were told that antioxidants are good for our health, but what exactly are antioxidants and how do they really benefit our body? To understand antioxidants, we must first understand what free radicals are.
What are free radicals?
Free radicals can come from by-products of body metabolic processes and also carcinogens in our environment such as tobacco smoke, air pollution and ultraviolet radiation. Many free radicals are unstable and highly reactive, thus they are able to alter cells in our body such as lipids, proteins and even DNA. This can lead to several types of diseases.
Why are free radicals harmful?
High levels of free radicals will overwhelm our body’s ability to regulate them, thus causing oxidative stress. Many chronic and degenerative aliments are directly or indirectly caused by oxidative stress such as:
- Inflammation of the joints
- Acceleration of the ageing process
- Vision loss due to the deterioration of eye lens
- Damage to nerve cells in the brain that will contribute to neurodegenerative disease such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer disease
- Increased risk of heart diseases
- Certain cancers caused by damaged DNA
Our body is able to counteract oxidative stress by naturally producing antioxidants, but certain times this will not be sufficient. Antioxidants that are supplied externally through food and supplements play an important role in helping to cope with oxidative stress as well.
What are antioxidants?
Antioxidants are molecules that can protect our body by taking up free radicals, or in other words neutralizing them to reduce their capacity to damage.
Why are antioxidants important and why do we need them?
Antioxidants have many benefits but the main benefit is that our body uses antioxidants to balance free radicals.This balance between free radicals and antioxidants is necessary for proper physiological function. This can delay or even stop cell damage caused by free radicals.
Another important note is what antioxidants do for skin. Our skin acts as a defense barrier role against physical, chemical and biological aggressions. One of the threats of the skin is the ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the constant exposure to sunlight. UV rays will cause inflammation and photo damages to the skin, resulting in fine and coarse wrinkles, roughness, freckles and pigmentation changes that occur as a result of prolonged exposure to the sun. Antioxidants may help to reduce the inflammation caused by free radicals, protect against UV damage, stimulate collagen production that may improve skin elasticity and texture
Can our body produce antioxidants?
Our body is able to produce certain antioxidants such as glutathione and CoQ10 but these productions tend to decrease with age.The best way to get enough antioxidants is through a healthy diet that includes a mix of colorful fruits and vegetables.
What are the benefits of some common antioxidants
- Vitamin A. Vitamin A is found naturally in animal livers, green leafy vegetables and dairy products. It is important for normal vision and also helps our organs such as lungs, heart and kidneys to function properly.
- Vitamin C. Vitamin C is important for our health as it is needed for overall growth, repair and development of our body. It is also involved in many body functions such as immune function, collagen formation, absorptions of certain minerals, wound healing and the maintenance of our cartilages, bones and teeth. Our body does not produce and store Vitamin C therefore it is important to get sufficient Vitamin C to ensure a healthy development. Vitamin C can be obtained from citrus food, broccoli, bell peppers, berries and also from antioxidants supplements.
- Alpha-lipoic acid. Alpha-lipoic acid is both water- and fat-soluble. It is produced in our body but only in small amounts. Animal products like red meat and organ meats are great sources of alpha-lipoic acid. This unique antioxidant has shown beneficial properties in diabetic patients, particularly by regulating blood sugar and helping the symptoms of nerve damages. This in turn lowers the risk of diabetes complications such as diabetic retinopathy.
- Selenium. Although Selenium is only needed in a small amount, it still plays an important role in regulating thyroid hormone metabolism and DNA synthesis and thus protecting the body from oxidative damage and infection. Selenium can be found in whole grains and animal products.
- Lutein. Lutein is a potent antioxidant that protects our body especially the eyes. It is well known to protect our eyes from sunlight damage and any condition related to eye disease. The highest content of dietary Lutein that can be found are in dark green leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach and broccoli.
A diet high in antioxidants may reduce the risk of many diseases including heart disease and some cancers. Therefore, it is important for us to consume a healthy and well-balanced diet regularly to equip our body with these protectors.
- Lobo, V., Patil, A., Phatak, A., & Chandra, N. (2010). Free radicals, antioxidants and Functional Foods: Impact on human health. Pharmacognosy Reviews, 4(8), 118. https://doi.org/10.4103/0973-7847.70902
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